Your tongue helps you taste, chew, swallow, talk, and sometimes even show affection or annoyance. It's made largely of muscle and extends farther back than you may realize. Helping it perform its jobs are thousands of taste buds (sitting between tiny bumps called papillae) and an intricate network of nerves. It's easy to take your tongue for granted, but problems can arise. Usually they're minor, but sometimes they're a sign of a more serious health condition. Here are answers to some tongue-related questions.
Cracks (or fissures) are normal. More men than women have them, and they become more noticeable with age.
The tongue usually heals remarkably fast. If the wound is minor, swish some salt water around or suck on ice to ease discomfort and reduce swelling. If the cut is deep and there is a lot of bleeding, you may need to go to the emergency room.
It may be burning mouth syndrome, which is more common in older women. The burning sensation may be constant or sporadic, sometimes accompanied by a bitter or metallic taste. There's often no identifiable cause, but sometimes burning mouth syndrome is the result of an underlying medical condition, such as an infection, diabetes, or vitamin deficiency. Treatment varies, depending on the cause.
Either method can help. Do it in the morning, after you eat, and before bed. Such cleaning decreases bacteria on the tongue that are largely responsible for bad breath, along with food particles and volatile sulfur compounds. Pay special attention to the back of the tongue. You can buy an inexpensive metal tongue cleaner at the drugstore or just use your toothbrush.
Formally known as lingua villosa, this harmless build-up of keratin (a protein) and bacteria and lengthening of the papillae produces a fuzzy discoloration. Try brushing or scraping your tongue to remove the coating. If it doesn’t go away, see your doctor.
If your tongue suddenly swells, it may be anaphylaxis, a dangerous allergic reaction (seek medical help immediately). Whitish or yellowish plaque may indicate a fungal or bacterial infection; bright or dark red coloration, a folate or vitamin B12 deficiency. White patches that are also on your inner cheeks or bottom of your mouth may be leukoplakia—a precancerous condition. Lumps, sores, or ulcers that don’t heal may be oral cancer.
The best thing you can do for your tongue, sense of taste, and mouth in general is to avoid smoking, chewing tobacco, and heavy drinking—and, of course, practice good oral hygiene.